Salvation Army, Growmobile combine to offer brighter summer for kids
WILLMAR -- Unleash 30 kids with bright red frosting and graham crackers, and you get edible fire trucks. And a bit of a mess. And maybe a little more.
It was Tuesday, which is craft day for the United Way Growmobile summer program.
Regina Schmitz, who operates the Growmobile, said the program reaches from 180 to 200 kids a week at five locations around Willmar. Last summer about 160 kids a week participated.
The Salvation Army provides free meals for kids 18 or younger five days a week. The Growmobile is there to provide education and activities after lunch for those who want to stay. The lunches and activities are open to all children.
At the Regency West neighborhood last week, more than 30 children were there, along with some adults.
Schmitz was joined by United Way worker Jenna Hafner and several employees of the Willmar Community Education and Recreation Department who would be working with the kids in the afternoon.
Volunteers that day included Kathy Quam and Shawn Franklin from Affiliated Community Medical Centers and Travis Szczesniak of Windstream, formerly En-Tel Communications. All of them praised the program and jumped right in to read books and help with the crafts.
"I think it's just great that they get some nutrition," Quam said.
Without the summer program, some of the kids might not get a healthful lunch and they wouldn't be getting the mental stimulation from the Growmobile.
"Transportation is definitely an issue; that's why we come to them," Schmitz said.
After a lunch of tacos in a bag, pink ice cream and milk, Schmitz and the other adults each sat on a blanket, surrounded by children.
The kids ranged from baby Sam, who watched from a stroller, his big eyes taking in everything the big kids were doing, to Ruben Valdez, a 14-year-old who sat in a circle with his friends and talked about going to high school and college.
Schmitz, Hafner and the others read the book "Five Hundred Words to Grow On." The book shows pictures of everyday objects, animals and plants with their names in English and Spanish.
Since the book had a picture of a fire truck on the front cover, Schmitz said, she decided to have the kids make fire trucks for their craft day. It was the only edible craft of the summer.
She opened a tub of bright red frosting and passed out graham crackers. One red-frosted graham rectangle was the body of the truck, an Oreo cookie split apart made wheels, and bits of torn-up black licorice made a ladder.
Schmitz suggested that they take home their fire trucks and eat them after dinner. Some of the kids didn't want to wait that long, and it wasn't long until little faces and hands were smeared with red.
Ruben looked at one little boy and joked, "We caught you red-handed." He said he watches over two younger siblings and two neighbor children in the summer and brings them to lunch every day.
The Growmobile usually aims its efforts at kids from birth to 6, to help them get ready for school. The summer program works with all the kids who show up, Schmitz said.
The program helps build English vocabulary for some kids, and for the older ones, she hopes to help them maintain their skills over the summer.
Every Friday, the program hands out backpacks, one per family. The backpacks are filled by the Willmar Area Food Shelf to help feed a family of four over the weekend. The Growmobile provides books and educational materials that the families can keep. Kids return the backpacks at the beginning of the week.
Schmitz said the program helps "keep them interested in books and provide families with bilingual resources."